Willie Mays: An Original
Mays was simply the best all-round player I’ve ever seen, and everybody who watched him play felt the same. “When you talk to players from different eras,” said Alvin Dark, “there are always those who stand out for the guys who played with them. When I’ve talked to players from the ‘30s, Joe DiMaggio was that guy. For those in my era, Willie was the one.” Maybe even more than DiMaggio. Leonard Koppett was a friend of DiMaggio’s, but he always said Mays was the best he’d seen.
For all his varied skills, it was Mays’ baserunning that most capivated those of us who saw him on a regular basis. He always knew where everybody was on the field, an ability he attributed to his football days in high school, where he played quarterback on offense, safety on defense. He would coach baserunners behind him even as he was running, and when he went for an extra base, he always seemed to get it. He remembered being thrown out by Roberto Clemente, who had a terrific arm, on a bang-bang play at third once. He also got thrown out at third during the 1962 playoff against the Dodgers. “The umpire blew that call,” he said. “I was safe.”
Everybody who watched him had a favorite play. Lon Simmons remembered a time when Mays was between second and third as left fielder Don Demeter was picking up the ball. “Demeter faked a throw to third but he didn’t think Willie was going there, so he threw to second,” remembered Simmons, “but Willie just kept running and he scored on the play.”
My favorite came in a game against the New York Mets with Choo Choo Coleman as the catcher. There was a short passed ball, just a few feet from the plate. Giants manager Herman Franks said after the game that he wouldn’t have sent a runner from first on the play, but Mays scored, standing up.
“I could see from the angle of the ball when the pitcher released it that it was going to be wide of the plate,” Mays told me, “so I just started running. As he (Coleman) started to go after the ball, he saw me coming and couldn’t move. The ball just laid there.”
There were other similar plays in his career, said Mays, who has an amazing recall of his great plays. “I used to amaze myself, the things I could do,” he said.
KOPPETT ALWAYS told me that I didn’t see Mays at his fielding best because neither Seals Stadium nor Candlestick Park had the vast areas of outfield that the Polo Grounds had. Bill Rigney, the Giants’ first manager in San Francisco, said there were many times when a drive would go over the fence and Mays would tell him, “I could have got that, Skip, but I ran out of room.”
The most famous Mays catch was the over-the-shoulder catch of Vic Wertz’s drive in the 1954 World Series, but he has often said he made better catches. The one Rigney remembered came in a regular season game against the Pirates in old Forbes Field, which, like the Polo Grounds, had a huge outfield.
“We always waited for Willie to tap his glove because that was a sign he had it,” said Rigney. “This time, we waited and waited and waited. Willie just kept running and, at the last moment, reached out and caught it barehanded.” When he came back to the bench, Mays said, “Sorry, Skip, I just couldn’t reach it with my glove.”
There’s a phrase in baseball, “He took off at the crack of the bat.” In fact, great outfielders don’t wait for that; they start running as soon as they spot the ball, a split-second ahead of the sound. Mays was like that – until the Giants moved to Candlestick. When he saw how the wind could affect the flight of the ball, he realized he had to wait for just a moment and then adjust for what the wind could do. Amazingly, I never talked to anybody who could recall Mays misjudging a fly ball in the Candlestick wind. Certainly, I can’t.
The reduced outfield space enabled Mays to play closer to the infield than he had in New York, and he played close enough to catch some balls that would have dropped in front of other centerfielders – but he still got back on the deep balls.
When the Giants moved Willie McCovey to left field to try to keep both McCovey and Orlando Cepeda in the game, Mays had another challenge. McCovey had never played in the outfield, not even in high school. Mays told him, “You guard the line. I’ll take everything else.” And, he did.
MAYS ALSO took the thinking man’s approach when it came to hitting.
As early as his second full season, 1954, Mays had made a midseason adjustment. He was leading the National League in home runs (my memory tells me he had 30 at the All-Star break, but it might have been one or two less) by pulling the ball down the line. Pitchers started throwing him low, outside pitches, so he started taking the ball to right field. His power totals fell off – he wound up with 41 homers – but he led the league in hitting, at .345.
It was the same in the Giants’ first season in San Francisco, when they played in cozy Seals Stadium. Pitchers didn’t give Mays many pitches he could hit out, and he hit only 29 homers. But, going with the pitch, he hit .347 and set what is still a San Francisco franchise record with 208 hits.
When the Giants took their first batting practice at Candlestick in 1960, the right-handed power hitters were dismayed. The wind blowing in from left field caught many of their hardest drives, well short of the seats.
Mays saw that and adjusted his swing. He concentrated on hitting the ball to right center, reasoning that the wind would carry the ball out to right field. (Interestingly, when we talked, he said he thought the wind cost McCovey some home runs, because the long, towering drives that Stretch hit were sometimes blown foul.)
For years, writers claimed that Candlestick cost Mays many home runs, and that was resurrected today with comments written at the time by longtime beat writer Bob Stevens. Many years ago, I was curious about that, so I researched Mays’ home run totals at Candlestick and on the road. I don’t remember the totals, but I do remember that the numbers were exactly the same. And, he hit as many as 52 home runs in a season while playing half his games at Candlestick. That should have made writers aware that the park didn’t hurt his power numbers.
IN MAYS’ TIME, there wasn’t the extensive television coverage of today, with constant replays on the sports shows of top plays.
No matter. For those of us who were there, the memories of Mays dancing off a base, taunting an outfielder to make a throw he’ll regret, of Mays sprinting to make a basket catch in the outfield and then quickly whirling to get a hard, accurate throw back to the infield, of Mays hitting the dirt, bat flying to avoid a brushback pitch from Don Drysdale or Bob Gibson – and then blasting a home run – will always be as vivid as any television image.
He was an original.
TOMORROW: I'm going to be on Marty Lurie's "Right Off the Bat" show, which airs at 11 a.m. on KCCY, 1550 AM, tomorrow. I may not have time to write before I go to the park, so if you check in early, come back between 4-5 p.m. and I'll have something posted by then.
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